Game Design for Player Interaction Part Two

Happy Friday! Let’s pick up where we left off: Player interaction is dependent on the design. How someone will play your game depends on the rules and interactions they are allowed in your game.

Our attempts at using the Oculus were hampered when we tried to add haptic feedback for being hit with a bent baseball bat.
Our attempts at developing for the Oculus were hampered when we tried to add haptic feedback for being hit with a bent baseball bat.

Let’s play Monopoly (not really because I like you kid and if I’m going to keep liking you we better not play Monopoly). We pick a game piece for our avatar, collect a certain amount of money, and then roll dice in turn to determine where we end up. Then we buy and sell land hoping to come out the most rich of everybody.

There is some skill involved (which properties you buy and which you sell) and there is a lot of luck. The way a player interacts with the game is by rolling the dice, moving their pawn, and making a choice with the resources they have. Pretty tame mechanics that are hinged on the theme of real estate. Chance is a major component of the game (as well as stuffing a few extra gold bills up your sleeve if you are the banker) with nearly no thought at all.

The way players approach the game however is very different for each player. Some try to save their cash till they are around the board for higher value properties while others go for the slum lord play and buy the cheapest possible properties and waging that they will make more money off of several small value transactions.

If players lose their money they are out of the game. A roguelike in that regard.

From the Internet Archive
Pictured: The Horror – Via the Internet Archive

Is it a good design? Does it matter? People still ask to play this game to this day. It still makes good sells. I happen to have the Dr. Who version on my shelf. The mechanics are poor however. I would argue that is because the way a player can interact with the game is limited.

Now think of Dungeons & Dragons–you have a bajillion rules and ways to interact with the game. The Dungeon Master sets the boundaries but you get to choose how you find them and work within them. I would argue that this is amazing game design but sales for D&D 5e (#25,712 in Toys and Games) are not any where near that of Monopoly (#156 of Toys and Games). Why the difference? Well… that’s a big question but the short answer is that of the two Monopoly is more approachable for a general audience.

This is the same secret to success for Angry Birds, 2048, and Farmville–no matter your opinion of those games they made huge impacts to the market at large. Their mechanics are simple and easy to understand. Try creating a game with half as much flexibility as D&D for a mobile game and see how long it takes before making a new Flappy Bird.

It can be done--but at what cost?!
It can be done–but at what cost?! Via Gabriele Cirulli

Game design then is about balance. Good game design gives the player agency to interact with the game in meaningful ways while poor design (all in my personal opinion) have you rolling the dice and giving your wife all your mortgaged properties… err, I mean pay money.

Back to Sam & Max, the reason it has good design in my opinion is that even though it is a puzzle game it invites the player to interact with the world as they like. Even interactive fiction games leave the player to make choices. Zork was famous for allowing the player to fail often and well through programming extra choices into the game. It allows agency for the player to succeed or fail. The chance of failure may not be high in a puzzle game but any chance of it means you are playing a game.
My play throughs are still terrible in Zork.

Even if your game is “just” a flappy bird clone it will live or die on how you allow players to interact with it. Giving players more control to determine the outcome is better design. It’s the difference between Snakes & Ladders and Twilight Imperium. There is a balance between those two that will help determine your audience and marketability but the difference in design and interaction are apparent.

Pictured: my new life. Tell my family I love them. Fantasy Flight Games
Pictured: my new life. Tell my family I love them in case I never see them again.
Fantasy Flight Games

To play on a comment from Part One, StarCraft has a large player base with many different competitions. Players can watch these matches and learn better tactics. However I would argue that the design favors that form of interaction (watching and learning) where as Tic-Tac-Toe has yet to develop a wide audience for online competition (my day will come! Right after my air-guitar finals). The difference between the two is how good the design in StarCraft is. TTT offers only so many moves. In fact every game ever can be calculated to (from what I see from a brief Googling) 255,168. That means it is possible to actually see every single game ever. There is a dominant strategy to completing TTT without much agency.

StarCraft on the other hand allows for near infinite solutions as just changing the timing of a troop deployment or the number of resource gathers can completely change the outcome of a game. Even if a player was at the Skill Ceiling (absolute best possible within the confines of the game) no two games would ever play exactly the same in theory (monkeys and typewriters man). Through design control, a developer like Blizzard could change how players decide to interact with the huge number of options they have.

For example, I love the Protoss. Their units speak to me, their lore is awesome, and they have amazing power. I utterly stink with them. I tend to play multi-player as Terran or Zerg. Once my brother and I were playing a one-on-one both as Terran. He began liberally nuking me. So I floated half my base over a ridge to a new base camp. He thought he had won and just had a few troops left somewhere in hiding with a command center. Then the nuclear rain fell on his base. When he countered I was left making an SCV rush. I lost spectacularly however another player might have stood their ground or made an earlier charge or any number of other solutions.

I've come to do two thing, chew bubble gum and harvest vespene gas. And I'm all out of vespene gas.
I’ve come to do two things, chew bubble gum and harvest vespene gas. And I’m all out of vespene gas. Via Blizzard

That is the magic in game design. You can tweak little things like pistol reload time and change everything about how a player reacts and interacts with your game. Learning which mechanics get the results you want and how to alter them is what game design is all about.

Alright, that was a lot of words. Thanks for reading and see you next time!